“First your nose picks up the scents of the essential oils. You might start trying to guess what you are smelling – but you don’t quite get it. Because behind the wall from the reception, we could be making any number of products and using ten different essential oils.”
There’s a mad scientist, but also the deftness of an artist at play here. I imagine vials and glass jars and counters rubbed clean to perfection. But also the image of a woman, framed in a sunlit window. Home gardener, potion maker. Powered by the scent of neroli.
Zikhona Tefu is the founder and owner of O’live – natural, organic and handmade soaps. A small business founded in 2011 from her home kitchen, that today has expanded to a team of 9 and a range of bath and body products.
Zikhona’s journey to small business owner took root in a different field. Naturally creative, inherently ‘crafty’, she initially pursued a degree in fashion design. But there is an inherent overlap that connects the two paths.
“Making soap is in a way artistic. Even though the process is scientific and there are things you can’t change, you can still infuse your own artistic and crafty flair when it comes to what ingredients and scents you use. Similarly to how a skirt silhouette is what it is, but the details are what you make it. Science makes the soap, but your creativity makes it your soap.”
And isn’t that an analogy for living.
There’s certainly a sense that Zikhona is able to combine the two streams; the precision of science with a sense of artistry. Peppered perhaps with a mother’s love; for that is really where it all began.
“Somewhere along the way, I stumbled across a bar of soap that was [labelled] ‘handmade’ and ‘natural.’ I was intrigued. I quite literally looked at my hands and wondered if they could also make this soap. What fuelled my curiosity was the fact that I found it soothing to my daughter’s skin condition – eczema. I think with the first batch I made, it was more a dare and a test to myself – would I succeed, would the soap lather, would it last, and most importantly, would it continue to soothe my daughter…”
Realising that what was at once a self-confessed ‘humble hobby’ had the makings of a viable business, Zikhona sought to make her product stand out – which led her to her signature brand of olive oil soap. ‘Olive’ was to become not only the ringer in her name, but also a nod to her foundational values.
“O’live was a play on the word olive. I also meant it as a reminder for us to live consciously (O’live). It means be mindful – to know what you are putting on your skin.”
When asked what other passions she holds dear, it seems only fitting that Zikhona is remarkably green-thumbed. A few succulents, purchased before the initial lockdown, have since become a sprawling home garden. Nurturing, caring, creating. There is a common thread here.
“Two years later, I have hundreds of succulents. I even have a dedicated Instagram account called @plantifiedhome and on Facebook it’s Zik’s Succulents. It’s a hobby still, but I think of my home as a nursery. My plants are my therapy.”
I think of Zikhona, tending to her plants, Artist’s Apron adorned perhaps. It’s a naive image; faintly pastoral. But there’s a slow life element here which wants to be heard.
“When I started O’live, it was really part of the lifestyle we were aspiring to live. All-natural was a part of that. I hardly think of it as all-natural though – more of a conscious, self-sustainable way of living. Making the decision that I want to know what goes into what I put in, and on, my body.”
Slower. Mindful. Not only taking from the earth but giving back. Nature. Nurture. Integrity. This isn’t at odds with Mungo.
“I think there’s a commonality here with Mungo – we both craft handmade artisan products. With a strong shared belief in local sustainability.”
Of course I ask her thoughts on The Artist’s Apron. And her response is sweet and sincere.
“What a well-made apron! I love that it has a whole front coverage. I wonder where it was all along… I have been wearing it everyday. It is so stylish that if I need to go somewhere while working, I don’t take it off. The fabric is just luxury, and the cut is chic. This is the apron for every creative or artisan worker.”
From the kitchen to the studio. 11 years on – some things change, others never do. Quality, artistry, passion and flair. Small family business, big dreams.
“I wouldn’t say O’live has changed since we started out – not at the core. We still do what we love, with local ingredients. I would say we have grown and matured in business. Our range has grown, our access has expanded, we’ve moved from our flat kitchen and dining room table to a 200 square metre factory. We’ve moved from making 12-bar batches to 100-bar batches. We’ve grown from a one-woman show to 9 folks. We are excited to see what we do with the next 10 years!”
And her proudest moment? Simply encapsulated:
“Every time people buy our products there is still this thing inside that swells up. Every single sale is feedback. A far cry from 2011 when I wondered if this made sense. After a decade of “yes, please” from customers all over the world, there is no better feedback.”
As I pull together the last threads of this story, a box arrives at the office. Inside neat rows of handmade O’live soaps. Cedarwood. Neroli. Lemongrass. Heavenly. Trust me.
Want to find O’live soaps?
You can visit her online store here. Or if you’re in Cape Town, pay a visit to The Watershed at the V&A Waterfront, or the Oranjezicht City Farm Market at Granger Bay – where you’ll find her keeping company with other makers of the artisanal, natural and handmade.
And of course, you can browse and shop Zikhona’s Artist’s Apron, here.
Pssst. Shop the Artist’s Apron and you’ll receive a complimentary O’live Handmade Soap!
*While stocks last*